Monday, March 10, 2008

Ask the Administrator: The High School – College Gap

A returning correspondent, who works at a cc, writes:

I have a question I'd like to ask about outreach
to local high school districts. I'm wondering if you
would have any advice, or whether your readers would
have any advice. We were approached by one of our
feeder HS districts to help them help their students
to bridge the remediation gap. In other words, their
students tend to fare poorly on placement tests given
in the local state university system and in the local
community college system. So they are effectively
asking us if we can do anything to better align what
they are doing with what we are doing.

I'm interested in working on this, but we don't have a
lot of money available. I spoke with someone who works
at supervising outreach programs at the chancellor's
office of the state university, and learned about what
has worked well and what hasn't worked well for them.

It's a great question.

This is one of those “nobody designed the system” phenomena that wouldn't make any sense at all if we were building a new system from the ground up. Many states, mine included, have statewide exams administered to high school seniors in a few core curriculum areas. High schools are judged, in part, by their aggregate performance on these exams. (No Child Left Behind, as I understand it, has raised the stakes and increased the reporting requirements.) So local districts have pretty much mandated that their teachers teach to the tests.

Inherently, this is neither good nor bad. If you're teaching to a fantastic test, then all is well. The problem is when the test isn't all that good, or isn't measuring the right things.

The Institutional Research Officer at my cc recently produced some numbers showing the percentage of new students from each of our local sending districts who placed remedial in English, Math, or both. In many cases, districts with plenty of money and excellent reputations were sending us cohorts in which half or more of the students needed remediation. And the percentages aren't just functions of low raw numbers, like a cohort of two people in which one needed extra help. These are significant numbers, coming from districts that think of themselves as the cream of the crop.

Since remediation is a major cost for us, we've started making some very gentle and tentative overtures to the high schools to get some discussion going about ways to better prepare the non-elite students for college-level work. (By and large, the elite students don't apply to cc's.) We've found a few things.

First, the tests to which they're asked to teach don't particularly resemble the tests we use for placement. So students who pass the statewide high school exams with points to spare frequently do poorly on our tests. (For example, the high school English essay test is based on the absence of errors. Ours is based more on the ability to make an argument. So a student who learned to write variations on “See Spot run” will do fine on the statewide test, and bomb ours. Similarly, the high school math test allows calculators; ours doesn't.)

Second, the high schools DO NOT like to hear it. The fact that in your case, they've reached out to you, will save a lot of time. With many of them, we're still trying to get past the 'denial' stage.

Third, and this surprised me more than it should have, certain schools that shall remain nameless have a disturbing tendency to shrug off our data with a dismissive reference to self-selection. In other words, “well, hell, you just get the weak kids anyway.” What this says about leaving no children behind, I'll leave as an exercise for the reader.

Fourth, training a newly critical eye on our own tests and protocols has sometimes been embarrassing. As easy as it is to blame the high schools for everything, I can't say that our house was completely in order, either. (One example: until I specifically asked them to change the procedure, the essay readers saw the students' names when they graded the essays. Districts with plenty of Spanish surnames intimated, with varying degrees of subtlety, that an essay with “Velasquez” on top would get graded more harshly than one with “Bailey” on top. Now they're simply numbered, so even if a given reader held racist leanings, he wouldn't have the opportunity to exercise them.) We've improved drastically over the past few years – I count that as one of my prouder achievements here – but problems this severe seldom have a single author.

What I absolutely would not to is start at the top. If you work mostly with principals and guidance counselors, they'll 'yes' you to death and nothing will change. Work with the teachers directly. Best case, pair your professors with their teachers. If the teachers lead, the principals will follow. (And model non-defensiveness when your own procedures are questioned or attacked, which they will be.)

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.